|THE FREEWHEELIN’ TODD HAYNES: On the set of I’m Not There, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire.|
Todd Haynes has always been full of surprises. From his first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which reenacted the singer’s struggles with anorexia using Barbie dolls (her family blocked its release), to last year’s I’m Not There, which cast six actors as manifestations of Bob Dylan, the director hasn’t just pushed the envelope—he’s pulled out a whole new envelope, usually covered with his notes from film-theory class. (He famously persuaded Dylan to approve a biopic by presenting him with a thesis statement.) Haynes achieved mainstream acclaim just as he moved away from New York City in 2000 to a comparatively quiet life in Portland, but this Wednesday night he’ll return to his halcyon ’90s days at the forefront of the New Queer Cinema. He’ll kick off Cinema Project’s Expanded Frames, a five-night program of experimental film, with a
WW: Since you’re appearing in town to discuss your early work, I wanted to start in the exact opposite direction. What’s your next project?
Todd Haynes: It looks like we’re going ahead with a plan to adapt Mildred Pierce. I read the book recently, and it’s so different from the  Joan Crawford film. And it was something that I really thought would be amazing to do on TV. And it seems so fitting: It’s really about the Depression-era economy—not the film, [which] was switched to a 1940s setting—but the book, which spans the 1930s Depression in L.A. It feels particularly prescient right now.
Who’s your Joan Crawford?
I don’t know. It’s really early. We’re just pursuing the right to shoot at MGM right now—and how long a piece, and how many episodes, and how it’ll really play out on a small screen.
Do you think the Carpenters will ever let you release Superstar?
Oh, it sure would be nice, man. We haven’t really revisited the legal issues with them since, I think it was 1998. It might be due for another [try]. It’s just sort of a big schlep. It’s just a big, “OK, here we go again.” ’Cause they’ve been pretty unresponsive. Even when I’ve gotten some warm and supportive encouragement from the press to release the film and let it be shown: “It was really respectful of Karen and her memory” and all that. They’ve maintained a real strong, almost punitive resistance to it. So hopefully that’ll change, someday. But I have to get back on the case.
At this point, do you see yourself as a gay filmmaker, or as a filmmaker who happens to be gay?
I see myself—I guess, if I had to pick between the two—as a filmmaker who happens to be gay. My sexuality is not a precondition for the things that interest me in life, or that I want to explore or share. But it’s certainly defined me—it’s defined my point of view.
In your last movie, I’m Not There, you directed Heath Ledger in one of his final performances. How long did it take for it to sink in that he was gone?
Oh, it still hasn’t sunken in. I was so lucky to have gotten, I think, really close to him in the time that we were working and promoting the film together. He was a really extraordinary person beyond being an exceptional actor and a really creative being—beyond just film acting. He was planning to direct his first feature in the last year that he was around. So it’s just been sort of ongoing; it’s just so sad. And Michelle Williams I’ve continued to stay close to. Michelle was here over the summer, because she really loves Portland, and…just, whatever, she’s still going through it. I have nothing to compare to that experience. But it’s been unimaginably sad.
Are you going to make a movie in Portland?
I’d love to. I haven’t ever really started with that as a goal, you know, like, “What movie could I make in Portland?” I think in a way I almost don’t want to make a shiny, happy film about Portland; I don’t want more people to know about it than they already do. [Laughs.] It’s just selfish on my part.
Let’s say you’ve been tapped to direct The Sarah Palin Story. Who do you cast?
God, I’m still recovering from [the V.P. debate] last night. I mean, it’s hard to imagine anybody, of course, but Tina Fey. I don’t know that there’s any reason to do The Sarah Palin Story when Tina Fey’s doing it each week—and, strangely, not even having to make jokes, but just directly transcribe things that have been said publicly. But all joking aside, it’s a serious business, man. It’s shocking, I think, to be playing around with those positions of power. And yet she’s a fascinating performer. She really is a performer, and a political animal, and she did kind of an amazing job last night. But it was also kind of heartless.
Joan Crawford’s performance in the original Mildred Pierce is kind of a camp classic, isn’t it?
It’s a classic in a lot of different characterizations. And that goes from feminist film theory, who take it very seriously and have written a lot about it, and I come out of that theoretical background initially; when I was in college I was first exposed to the film in that context. So I actually saw it more through the lens of critical theory—culture, politics—than camp traditions, personally.
From the beginning of your career, you’ve been a director who has put a lot of academic film theory into his work.
The theoretical and political and social questions are definitely part of the process where I decide what I want to do and how I want to do it. It’s sort of why I’ve chosen the medium of film—with all of the baggage that it brings, it is an incredibly social medium which connects to our lives in such a complex series of ways. A person who makes films has to really think about those things before they set out. It’s too much work to do for no real reason.
Which of your early films are you most interested in revisiting Wednesday?
I know that they want to talk about my work in relation to avant-garde influences, which is a completely interesting and valid way of looking at some of my work. I guess we’ll be looking at Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Poison—and Dottie Gets Spanked, I think they mentioned.
You’re a groundbreaking filmmaker, and yet all of you movies take place in the past. Will you ever make a contemporary-set film?
I’m not sure. A lot of the ideas I’m toying around with for the future happen to not be. They’re always sort of about the present moment to me in some way. I almost feel like you can see the present better through a frame. And so the frames that I select are historic. They make some reference to, or some way of re-reading, where we are today—but it actually becomes more meaningful when the audience can make that connection themselves.
SEE IT: “Todd Haynes as Avant-Garde Filmmaker.” 8 pm Wednesday, Oct. 15.